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1968 - a European movement?

by Meike Dülffer

The protests of 1968 became an important chapter in the national history of many European countries. Retrospectives, memories and analyses play a central role in the debates in Eastern and Western Europe. To what extent were the events in different European countries connected, therefore constituting a European movement?

Forty years have passed since the student protests of 1968. The generation of activists of those times is now entering retirement age. The national media in Europe are using the anniversary of the movement to take stock and reassess events.

Protests in Paris
Photo: Günter Zint

"May 1968 is no longer perceived as a storm that appeared out of the blue, but as the epicentre of social changes that took place over the course of two decades," Johannes Willms notes in Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung of 5 March 2008. He talks of a historicising process, but adds that the debate is far from being a purely academic confrontation because many of the protagonists of the movement continue to play a major role - through their memories, their changed attitudes or their condemnation of their own history.

The Polish March

While the politicisation of Europe's youth had its roots in the United States hippy movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, in Europe it was in Poland that the first student uprising took place in March 1968.

It was sparked by the cancellation of performances of the play "Forefathers' Eve" by Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, and culminated in demands for freedom of expression and more democracy. "Unlike in the West, intergenerational conflict played a minor role in the Polish 1968. Writers, academics and scientists, who were also enraged by official censorship of Mickiewicz's play and national culture, joined the young in protest," Jan Skórzynski, former deputy editor-in-chief of the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, explained in an essay written for Project Syndicate in March 2008.

The Polish government reacted to the protests with an anti-Semitic campaign, the consequence of which was the denaturalisation or forced emigration of up to 15,000 Polish Jews. Forty years later, the Polish public is still preoccupied with these events, particularly because the publishing of Jan Tomasz Gross' book "Fear" had already sparked a heated debate and raised the question of a Polish brand of anti-Semitism after the Second World War.

With reference to the anti-Semitic campaign of March 1968, Polish historian Pawel Machcewicz argued in the Polish newspaper Dziennik on 8 March 2008 that the Soviet Union could not be held responsible for the smear campaign: "The anti-Zionist campaign of 1968 was autonomous. There is no evidence that Moscow stipulated either its form or its intensity."

Many of the victims have used the 40th anniversary of the protests as an opportunity to demand their re-naturalisation and an official apology from the current Polish government.

Prague Spring

More than the short-lived Polish March, which went largely unnoticed in the rest of Europe, Prague Spring was a turning point for many Europeans, particularly those living east of the Iron Curtain. "It would have been good if what happened in Czechoslovakia had also happened in the GDR," German Chancellor and former citizen of the GDR Angela Merkel recalled in the Suddeutsche Zeitung's magazine on 29 February 2008.

By this she meant an opening up of Actually Existing Socialism, as attempted in Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the Communist Party leadership under Alexander Dubček. It wanted to create a "socialism with a human face" that encompassed freedom of expression and alternative lifestyles. "One couldn't ignore what this new direction implied: namely that up to that point socialism had had the face of a monster," Slovak writer Irina Brezna noted on 29 February in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. "While the West's left saw 'Prague Spring' as a forward-looking 'Third Way' alternative, as the promise of a just society, for me the political thaw looked backwards and to the present. It was an exposure of communist crimes, and this was what gave it its humaneness."

Today the "Third Way" experiment is perceived as a failure in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, ended by the Soviet march into Prague in August 1968 and superseded by the decision in favour of the West's democratic model after 1989.

"Nowadays, the debate about 1968 is also complicated by the fact that the ruling conservatives deliberately dismiss the events as 'merely a power struggle within the KP leadership back then'. The idea is to discourage people from taking a closer look at the ideals and values of the time," Czech correspondent Hans-Jörg Schmidt wrote in an article published in Austria's Die Presse on 9 March 2008.

May 1968 in Paris

In France and Germany, on the other hand, there is plenty of writing and debating on about the events of 1968. "The commemoration of the 40th anniversary of May 68 is being ruthlessly exploited in France as the media event of the year, which began with an avalanche of conferences, books and lexicons on the subject," French philosopher Pascal Bruckner wrote in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir on 14 March 2008. And this despite the fact that French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the break with the '68-ers a theme of his election campaign last year.

In France, the protests of 1968 came to a head in the month of May, when student demonstrations were followed by the legendary street battles in Paris's Latin Quarter. In the Independent of 23 February 2008, John Lichfield described what made the events in France unique: "In no other country did a student rebellion almost bring down a government. In no other country did a student rebellion lead to a workers' revolt, one that rose up from the blue-collar grass roots and overwhelmed the paternalistic trade-union leadership as much as the paternalistic, conservative government."

Assessments of the impact of May 1968 differ greatly in France. While some French blame the activists for the country's social and moral decline, others see the protagonists of May 1968 as the origin of all later movements and draw a connection with the more recent revolts in the banlieues or the current schoolchildren and student protests.

In an interview published in the Süddeuetsche Zeitung on 17 February 2008, French philosopher André Glucksmann disputed these views: "Nothing is more ridiculous than the claims that the '68 generation did anything relevant. The 'generation of '68' existed for exactly three weeks, then it dispersed. It was a brief spell of enlightenment in the 20th century, and nothing more. ... May 1968 is neither the reason for our current good fortune nor the cause of our misfortunes."

Germany's '68-ers and the National Socialists

In Germany, too, half a dozen books about '68 have appeared to mark the 40th anniversary of the events, and exhibitions and documentaries are on show across the country. Historian and former activist Götz Aly caused a furore with his book "Unser Kampf: 1968 - ein irritierter Blick zurück" (our struggle: 1968 – a look back in vexation). Aly advocates the theory that the '68-ers resembled their Nazi parents more than they like to think, pointing out that they followed the mass murderer Mao, oversimplified the situation shouting slogans like "US-SA-SS" and took no interest in the major trials against the Nazis.

Historian Norbert Frei, on the other hand, stressed that a critical attitude toward the guilt of the National Socialists was the trademark of the German '68-ers: "In the historical-political landscape of the Republic of Germany, whether it was spoken out loud or not, the murder of European Jews stood out like a mountain of guilt. The young were particularly aware of its immensity," he wrote on 11 March 2008 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

"Over-commented and under-researched" is how Frei, who himself wrote the book "1968, Jugendrevolte und globaler Protest" (1968, youth revolts and global protest), describes 1968. He is one of the few to have put the German events in an international context and described the year 1968 in the US, Western and Eastern Europe.

Reform versus oppression

There have been scattered attempts to establish a connection between the events of 1968 in different nations - mostly while stressing the differences between Eastern and Western Europe.

Georges Mink described these differences as follows on 4 January 2008 in the French newspaper Le Monde: "On the one side, the goal was to break free from the Soviet-type system, which exhibited many characteristics of totalitarianism. On the other, the masses 'simply' wanted the unblocking of the existing democratic system, which was encapsulated in routine and devoid of all powers of imagination - and they achieved their goal (!). So the difference between the reactions of the two regimes can be described as follows: democracy reforms itself, while the authoritarian Soviet-style system responds by stifling all desire for change."

These differences became particularly apparent in people's attitudes in the protests in Germany, which was still divided at the time. In East Berlin people were guided less by West Berlin and more by events in Prague, as writer Rolf Schneider recalls in the German daily Die Welt of 12 February 2008: "In view of these events, the West German demonstrations we saw on television where people ran through the streets waving red flags calling for a democracy of soviets seemed irrelevant, childish and very far away."

Angela Merkel recalled similar memories of the events: "The one side wanted to break up socialism and make it more humane, but had no aversion to the social market economy as such. The other side had a free market economy background and glorified socialism. Basically, these were opposing movements, and yet in some ways they were the same."

Extension of freedom

In an attempt to explain what these movements had in common, Ernst Hanisch used "more precise definitions" in the Austrian daily Die Presse of 7 March 2008: "The '68 movement was a youth movement (led by students) aimed at creating a new world, a new society." According to Hanisch, beyond the ideological conflicts in Eastern and Western Europe, a fundamental characteristic of these movements was that "the breaking of rules within a political culture in which the slave mentality was still predominant increased the scope for freedom. Civil society was strengthened. A new attitude spread across the continent."

This new attitude found its expression in music and art, in sexual liberation and unconventional clothing. According to Lichfield, 1968 was primarily a cultural and sexual revolution and only to a lesser extent a political one. "France needed six weeks of mayhem to go from grey trousers to purple trousers; from the social and sexual repression of the 1950s to the social and sexual freedom, and confusion, of the 1970s (and afterwards)."

For Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the common features extend well beyond this. In an interview with Café Babel on 23 January 2008 he said: "1968 was still a European movement. It had different motivations, but it happened in many places in Europe. And this anti-authoritarian rebellion gave rise to a new form of society all over Europe. Today we are on the path to a common identity."

Meike Dülffer
Meike Dülffer was an editor for euro|topics. She studied Slavic studies, Eastern European History and Politics. She trained as a journalist at Berliner Zeitung before ...
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Alison Waldie

Original in German

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